8th Mar 2021

EU takes UK to court over social benefits test

  • The legal case will not lead to benefit tourism, says Brussels (Photo: doug88888)

The European Commission stepped into a highly sensitive national issue with one of the most eurosceptic member states Thursday (30 May) when it decided to take the UK to court over its social security tests for foreigners.

"The UK is denying people from other EU countries that live in the UK access to social security benefits to which they are entitled," a commission spokesperson said, justifying the legal action.

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Security benefits - such as unemployment benefits and family welfare - have been refused to "potentially tens of thousands of EU nationals," he added.

According to UK figures, there were 42,810 applications for social security benefits between 2009 and 2011 from citizens from the EU as well as Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland.

Of these, around 28,000 (or 64 percent) were turned down.

The commission said it was a “fair assumption” that a “significant proportion” of those refused social security were actually entitled to it.

The dispute centres on the 'right to reside' test that London applies when determining whether non-UK residents are entitled to social security benefits.

The commission says this is much tougher than the ‘habitual residence test’ agreed by all member states in 2009.

It argues that it has been trying to negotiate a solution with the UK authorities for two years but ultimately the difference proved “too fundamental.”

The commission tried to depoliticize the case, which has been seized upon by British politicians as another example of interference from the EU capital.

It said it only has powers to “coordinate” social security rules with the aim of ensuring freedom of movement of EU citizens and that it is a “purely legal” decision.

But the court move comes amid a highly charged national debate about migrants potentially falsely claiming benefits, with politicians openly speculating about the how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come to UK next year when labour restrictions are lifted.

The UK (along with Germany, the Netherlands and Austria) recently asked for tightened EU rules to stop benefit tourism - a demand dismissed by the commission for lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, it also comes amid a broader debate on the merits of EU membership, with the UK a referendum on issue in 2017.

Several commentators suggested that legal action on such an emotive topic will play into the hands of the UK Independence Party, advocating withdrawal from the EU.

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